Bosque County is located in Central Texas. The county seat, Meridian, is situated in the center of the county at latitude 31°56' N and longitude 97°39' W. The county lies approximately sixty miles south of Dallas–Fort Worth and forty miles north of Waco. Bosque County is bordered by Erath and Somervell counties to the north, Johnson and Hill counties to the east, McLennan and Coryell counties to the south, and Hamilton County to the west. State Highways 174, 144, 22, and 6 traverse the county, along with numerous county and farm-to-market roads; the public road system comprises 1,106 miles.
Bosque County is an agrarian area that covers 989 square miles. As a part of the Grand Prairie subdivision of the North Central Plains, the land is primarily an area of shallow to deep, well-drained soils underlain by limestone. Around the streams are deep, well-drained and moderately well-drained soils. Many believe that the soil is the most important natural resource of the county because the life of the livestock and the flora and fauna depend heavily upon it. Much sand, gravel, and limestone are mined in the county for construction. The alluvial soils of the riverbottoms promote the growth of elm, cottonwood, river birch, sycamore, ash, pecan, and a variety of oak trees. The area is also distinguished by clusters of flat-topped hills separated by low areas of flat grassland. Although many grasses cover the prairie areas of Bosque County, Johnson grass is the most common. Numerous livestock graze in the county, where sudden outcroppings of white limestone form tall, steep hills or cliffs. Throughout the plains areas, cedars, oaks, and mesquites are prevalent. The only commercial mineral found in Bosque County is limestone. In this region of rolling hills, the altitude ranges from 480 to 1,200 feet.
Bosque County is considered a "well-watered" area. The Brazos River borders the eastern edge of the county, and the Bosque River cuts through the center of the county north to south. Besides the major rivers, there are numerous smaller watercourses or tributaries, such as Mesquite, Grass, Hill, Duffan's, Fall, Honey, Meridian, Spring, Turkey, and Mill creeks. Near the northeast corner of the county lies the well-known Kimball's Bend in the Brazos River. In 1951 Lake Whitney was constructed on the Brazos River at the southeastern edge of Bosque County. This reservoir is used for recreation, flood control, and power generation. Throughout the county, the supply of water is adequate for domestic use, livestock, and irrigation.
Bosque County is very hot in the summer and cool in the winter, with occasional cold surges that cause sharp drops in otherwise mild temperatures. In the winter, the average low temperature is 47° F. The lowest temperature on record, however, is -3°, recorded at Whitney Dam on February 2, 1951. During the summer, the average daily high temperature is 95°. A record 111° was recorded on July 26, 1954. Rainfall is uniformly distributed throughout the county with an average of 33 inches a year. The heaviest one-day rainfall was 6.22 inches, measured at Whitney Dam on October 19, 1971. The average growing season lasts 243 days; the last freeze usually occurs in late March and the first freeze around late November. Along the North Bosque River in the southmost corner of the county, where the impermeable bedrock is most widely extended, serious floods occur. Intensive cultivation of the land has been a problem throughout the history of the county. Since the survival of the area depends on the soil, governmental agencies attempt through management to guard against flooding or erosion and exhaustion of the soil.
Tonkawa, Waco, and Tawakoni Indians roamed Central Texas long before settlement by European Americans. The Tonkawas were the most predominant in number, and they proved to be quite peaceable. They are said to have claimed that they never took a scalp. They were a small group, and the only complaint that the settlers registered against them was stealing. The Comanches, who lived nearby, occasionally raided travelers or settlers in the Bosque territory to steal horses and property or to take scalps. When Whites followed them in attempts to regain their property, the Tonkawas often acted as their guides.
The first exploring expedition that recorded travel in this area was made in 1721 by the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, a Spaniard who established many missions in Texas. In one trip from San Antonio de Béxar to an East Texas mission, he ventured away from the regular road, the Old San Antonio Road, and wandered north. During this time he camped near the Brazos River and a major tributary. He named this tributary Bosque, Spanish for "woods." The county, therefore, derives its name from the Bosque River.
Settlement of the area began in 1825 when Sterling C. Robertson obtained a grant from the Mexican government in order to colonize the area along the Brazos River. Very few of the homesteaders chose to live within the current boundaries of Bosque County; however, the grant did prompt travel through the area. The land granted was later transformed into districts, one being the Milam District. George B. Erath, a surveyor for both the Republic of Texas and the state of Texas, is credited with naming many of the streams and landmarks in Texas. In the late 1830s he named Meridian Creek and the Meridian Knobs for the fact that they were near the ninety-eighth meridian. In 1841 the botched Texan–Santa Fe expedition passed through the region, and many of the travelers chose to stay. In 1847, a prominent banker from New York, Richard B. Kimball, obtained a grant of land from the state of Texas along the west bank of the Brazos river fourteen miles south of the mouth of the Paluxy River. Soon, Kimball formed a partnership with Jacob De Cordova in order to develop this land. They planned to establish a town so that they could lure prospective settlers to move to the area. A site was chosen along the Brazos River where there was a shallow ford. They named the town after Kimball. Since this was the best spot to cross the river for miles, many east-to-west travelers came through town. At this point the Chisolm Trail crossed the waterway. The location of Kimball, therefore, made it a good stopping place for settlers, ranchers, and cowboys. Following a somewhat prosperous start, however, Kimball was missed by the railroads that were built in the county later in the decade; therefore, the town quickly declined, and only a few people remain there today.
In 1850, McLennan County was carved out of the Milam District. The same year the Universal Immigration Company of England purchased 27,000 acres of land from Richard Kimball and laid out a townsite on the west bank of the Brazos. In the late 1850s, the company sent over thirty families, comprising approximately 120 people. They settled in an area between the present-day towns of Kopperl and Kimball under a massive rock formation called Solomon's Nose. They named their idealistic colony Kent. Unfortunately, the citizens of Kent fell to the same fate that their predecessors did more than a century before in Jamestown, Virginia. The first harsh winter caused many hardships that led to a high number of fatalities. During the following spring, in their last attempts to survive as a community, they bought several cattle and some seed corn; however, they failed to build a fence around the crop and the cows ate all of the corn before it could be harvested. The settlement quickly broke up, and the colonists migrated separately to other areas. Some moved back to England.
Bosque County was officially formed in February 1854 from McLennan County. Soon a site was chosen at which to locate the county seat. Erath laid out the town of Meridian in the center of the county on land donated by Dr. Josephus M. Steiner. Town lots were sold at a public auction on the Fourth of July 1854. Soon thereafter, the first courthouse, a one-story log cabin, was erected in the middle of town. This building served the needs of the residents until 1869, when a larger frame structure was built. In 1871 this second courthouse burned. For four years the business of the county was conducted in a tent. In 1875 the third courthouse was completed, a three-story structure of native stone. This structure was demolished in 1886, when yet another courthouse was constructed. Built in Victorian Gothic style, this fourth courthouse was reconstructed and restored from 2005 to 2007.
Also in 1854, Norwegian immigrants began to move to the area. Ole Canuteson, the first, believed that the land was much like that in Norway. The state of Texas offered 320 acres to each family that would settle in the new county, and the Norwegians took advantage of the offer. Cleng Peerson, the "father" of Norwegian immigration to America, led the settlers to the region. The bulk of them settled in a triangular area bound by the present-day towns of Clifton, Norse, and Cranfills Gap. Peerson was sixty-seven years old when he moved to Bosque County, and he lived the remainder of his life in the area. Many descendants of the Canutesons, Ringnesses, Dahls, Questads, and other Norwegian settlers still live in Bosque County.
The first county election took place on August 7, 1854. The turnout was small, but county officials were chosen and the local government began to function. The next significant election took place on February 23, 1861, when secession was the issue. The citizens voted for it by 233 to 81; the Norwegians voted against secession by 52 to 42. Like many other European immigrants in Central Texas, the Norwegians of southern Bosque County maintained Union sentiments throughout the conflict, though they did not join in the fighting.
The history of the Civil War era in Bosque County is sketchy because of skimpy record keeping. Between 1861 and 1865 many men from the county served in the military. The most significant contributions were to the Second Frontier District, the Nineteenth Texas Infantry, and Company H of Col. T. C. Hawpe's regiment. The latter two units saw action in the Louisiana and Arkansas campaigns, and a few of the members fought with the Army of Northern Virginia. The majority of the soldiers, however, guarded the area against Indians. In January 1865 many of them fought in the famed battle of Dove Creek against the Kickapoos. Although the battle took place in what it now Tom Green County, many Bosque County fighters participated; about ten of them died. Probably the most significant impact of the Civil War in Bosque County was that it slowed, and in some places halted, development. Few people moved to new counties at the time, and the Norwegians stopped coming.
The county began to make progress in the decades following the Civil War. During Reconstruction the county population grew, from 4,981 in 1870 to 11,216 in 1880. Additionally, the black population increased from 293 in 1860 to 528 in 1870. But lawlessness, including the killing of freedmen, flourished. In early 1870 the situation was so bad that the Austin Daily State Journal reported Bosque County was averaging two killings each week. Bosque County Whites blamed the Republican government for these problems.
By 1880 the population had grown to 11,216, and the value of the farms in the county had finally surpassed the $1 million mark. New communities were established. Furthermore, in 1881 the Texas Central and the Santa Fe railroads came to the area, and several towns began to thrive. The number of manufacturing establishments increased from eleven in 1880 to eighty-five in 1900. The county, however, did not sustain this surge of growth, and by 1920 only twenty-one manufacturers remained; the number was the same in 1977.
At the turn of the century the population had increased to 17,390, but growth fell off subsequently in livestock production, crop production, and manufacturing. There were several reasons for the local depression. The soil was exhausted and eroding. Declining prices, spring floods, summer droughts, unseasonable weather, and onslaughts of insects plagued farmers. During the second decade of the twentieth century, Bosque County witnessed its first decline in population, decreasing from a peak of 19,013 in 1910 to 18,032 in 1920. The downward trend continued until 1980. During the decade before the Great Depression, Bosque County farmers and ranchers witnessed noticeable losses in agriculture. From 1920 to 1930, the value of all farms decreased from $26,308,381 to $17,255,955. The production of wheat alone dropped by more than 500,000 bushels. Manufacturers were down to eleven by 1930. When the depression hit the entire nation in 1929, Bosque countians were already suffering very hard times.
The residents of the county had remained faithful followers of Democratic politics from 1876 to 1932. The only break occurred in 1928, when they opposed Democratic candidate Alfred Smith because he was a Catholic with New York mannerisms. In November 1932 the county joined the voters of Texas and the rest of the nation to give Franklin D. Roosevelt an overwhelming victory at the polls. On March 25, 1933, when citizens in need of aid were required to assemble at the city hall in Clifton to register for assistance, 107 residents applied. Within a few days, half of them were employed clearing the municipal park under the Federal Emergency Relief Act. The Civilian Conservation Corps opened Camp Clifton on the banks of the Bosque River on June 21, 1933. The corps was assigned to beautify the city park and to construct low-water dams on nearby streams. Merchants of Clifton welcomed the workers with open arms. In June, articles in the local paper called for cotton growers to plow under a portion of their crops. Reportedly, at least 90 percent of the cotton farmers of the county supported the program; county farmers received an estimated $125,831 cash for the destroyed cotton. When Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, "blue eagles" began to appear in store windows throughout the county. But though the New Deal assisted Bosque County residents, it they could not stop the downward trend that had begun in the 1920s.
A succession of dry years in the late 1940s and 1950s forced many farmers to abandon their farms. The total number of farms dropped from 2,229 in 1930 to 1,558 in 1950. Only 1,002 farms were registered in 1982. During the mid-twentieth century, agricultural production and some livestock production also decreased. Fortunately for the county, when agriculture dropped off, manufacturing picked up the slack. Manufacturing establishments steadily increased in number and value every census year after 1947. After 1970, employment opportunities increased due to industrial growth in lumber, stone products, limestone, and, most significantly, apparel and textiles.
During the 1980s, Bosque County grew in population and economy. In the late 1970s and 1980s residents of Clifton, the largest town, carried out "Operation Comeback." The town grew by 40 percent in population and more than 100 percent in businesses. The town renovated old buildings in order to open a modern home for senior citizens, established Goodall-Witcher Hospital, and opened a 150-employee garment factory, an oilfield-tool manufacturing plant, and a 100-employee lime plant.
In 1990, the population of Bosque County reached 13,924, of which 91 percent were Anglo; the peak of 1920 was still unattained. Bosque County ranks fourteenth among all United States counties in the percentage of its population that is sixty-five years of age or older. As of 2014, 17,780 people lived in the county. Of those, 79.5 percent were Anglo, 16.7 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent African American. In addition to Clifton (population, 3,146), Meridian (1,498), and Valley Mills (1,223), the county has numerous small towns. As of 1982, there were 7,420 registered voters in the county. Voter turnout ranged remarkably between 58 and 73 percent in the 1980s; 97 percent voted Democratic and three percent voted Republican in the 1982 primaries. About half of those registered cast a ballot. Voting in presidential elections has varied. Since supporting Franklin Delano Roosevelt for four terms, county voters switched to the Republican candidates in 1952, 1972, and 1980 through 1992. The education level in the county has steadily increased. In 1950, 22 percent of the population had graduated from high school; in 1980, 44 percent.
Several prominent persons have hailed from Bosque County. Among them were Calvin M. Cureton, state attorney general and a member of the state Supreme Court; Earle B. Mayfield, United States senator; James E. and Miriam A. Ferguson, governors of Texas; and the Tandy family, who formed the Tandy Corporation.